The return of Test cricket to Headingley after a two-year absence is bound to bring memories of Ben Stokes and that remarkable Ashes Sunday flooding back, be it the Western Terrace erupting after the winning runs were thrashed through cover or the sight of Australia’s cricketers collapsing to the ground in disbelief.
But while England’s predicament for the third Test against India, which starts today, is similar to the one faced before the all-rounder’s miraculous intervention in 2019 – sitting 1-0 down to this summer’s tourists, and in danger of surrendering their chances of a series win – times have certainly changed, most notably in regards to the players present.
No Stokes is the obvious one, the all-rounder taking time out to prioritise his mental health, and there are just four survivors from the 2019 Test in total. England were hardly a settled side back then but the fact only Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler and Rory Burns remain – and only six of their 12 centrally contracted players are in the current squad – underlines how beset with injuries/collapses in form they are.
In 2019 they had also travelled from Lord’s buoyed by the scorching arrival of Jofra Archer; this week they are desperately hoping to reset themselves after last week’s final-day meltdown in the second Test in which they got suckered into a battle of machismo and then stuck in a blender by Virat Kohli’s fired-up four-pronged Indian pace attack.
Personnel-wise, India could well be unchanged, while the hosts appear set for two tweaks. The loss of Mark Wood to a jarred shoulder presents an opportunity for Craig Overton or the uncapped Saqib Mahmood on a pitch that is tipped to be slow, while Dom Sibley has been dropped and replaced by Dawid Malan at No 3, with Haseeb Hameed restored to open.
Malan was pretty much the only person England could turn to given a fixture list so devoid of first-class cricket in the peak summer months. The 33-year-old has faced a red Dukes ball just once this season, making 199 against a callow Sussex attack, but is a seasoned batsman with success in Twenty20 internationals. The latter point may cause some eyes to roll but as Malan himself says, the pace and intensity of the top level remain relevant regardless of format.
He appears to have a point to prove too. An average of 27 after 15 caps made his hook from the stage in 2018 understandable. But when Ed Smith, then national selector, said “it may be that his game is better suited to overseas conditions” – a reference to Malan’s 140 in Perth the previous winter, and a slightly gauche attempt to offer some hope of a return – the left-hander was left spinning more than most departees.
“You work your absolute socks off to earn the right to play for England and you get that call,” said Malan, on the eve of his return. “To then have comments that derail you slightly as a player and get pigeon-holed into things, it’s amazing how it leads to every single Tom, Dick and Harry having an opinion on you. It probably did affect me for the next four, five, six months. I just couldn’t get in the right headspace after all of that.”
Malan accepts he became uptight towards the end of his previous Test stint, hammering away in the nets as his desperation increased, but these days he appears at peace. That said, he also hinted at some fatigue after just one month off since last November, something he hopes can be overcome by an opportunity he wasn’t expecting and the carrot of a possible return to Australia this winter.
Expectations should be tempered but, at the same time, Root desperately needs runs to flow from a bat other than his own. Malan has only fleetingly been a Yorkshire cricketer since his move from Middlesex in late 2019, but Headingley also presents a chance for Bairstow to turn a seemingly tighter new technique into an innings of substance in home surroundings. Watching him this summer, you sense it’s coming.
Some assistance in the field wouldn’t go amiss either. Root dutifully shouldered the blame for that baffling final morning against the Indian tail at Lord’s but with Jimmy Anderson out there too, as well as Buttler, a player regularly hailed for his shrewd cricket brain, others could and should have chipped in. Instead both were drawn into a war of words with their opponents when cooler heads were required.
But then India, through a combination of Kohli’s cologne-splashed charisma, two in-form openers in Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul, and a superior attack, appear to have got between the ears of England. The question now, back at the scene of a miracle two years ago, is whether they can be shifted before it’s too late.